From the earth, for the Earth

UND  hosts regional training session on preparing plant-based foods to help meet a growing demand

Plant-based cooking

On June 1 and 2, Gregory Gefroh (left), UND executive chef, and UND Dining Services hosted “Forward Food, A Culinary Experience.” The training session in plant-based cuisine drew 28 participants from UND, Mayville State University, North Dakota State University, the North Dakota State College of Science and Sanford Health. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

What you can put on the plate can make a difference.

That’s a message being embraced by more and more institutional food operations.

On June 1 and 2, UND Dining Services played hosted to “Forward Food, A Culinary Experience.” The training session in plant-based cuisine drew 28 participants from UND, Mayville State University, North Dakota State University, the North Dakota State College of Science and Sanford Health.

Leading the program were Ken Botts, food and nutrition manager for the Humane Society of the United States, and Wanda White, chief instructor for the Humane Society. Both previously held food service leadership positions at the University of North Texas.

The audience for plant-based cuisine has become far more than a fringe segment, Botts pointed out. One immediate impact is the appeal to potential students. The choices offered by campus dining services have become a vital component of enrollment strategies. His North Texas experience underscored this.

“We’re responsible for helping recruitment of students by providing food, and we’re also responsible for quality of life once they’re on our campus,” Botts explained. “That means we help with retention. And those are two really important words to university administrators: recruitment and retention.”

Sustainability key

At North Texas, they had an underperforming dining center, he recalled. There was talk of closing it, but they decided to experiment by revamping it and instituting a plant-based menu.

“We thought there was going to be a student uprising because we were taking meat off the plate, but the exact opposite happened,” Botts said. “We were at 175 transactions a day. When we opened, that went up to 500 transactions a day almost immediately.”

Participation continued to climb, and that drew national attention. It also pointed out that for students (and others), there was more to this trend than just food flavors.

“Its not about the vegan and vegetarian foods anymore,” Botts said. “It’s about the foods they are eating for health reasons, for religious reasons. But more and more, what we’re hearing from students on campus is that they are eating this way because they know that the foods they choose to put on their plates affect the planet. Sustainability is a big issue.”

President Mark Kennedy, First Lady Debbie Kennedy, UND Executive Chef Gregory Gefroh

UND Executive Chef Gregory Gefroh shows UND President Mark Kennedy and First Lady Debbie Kennedy some vegetarian dining options at “Forward Food, A Culinary Experience.” Photo by Charles Crummy.

Networking opportunities

Because they are often obtained nearby, plants for food enhance local economies and also reduce transportation costs and environmental impacts. “This is a message that really resonates well with students,” Botts observed.

The success of plant-based menus ultimately rests with flavor and variety, and participants in the Forward Food training program spent two days cooking and sampling. Sessions covered “street foods” (tacos, sliders, etc.), breakfast items, soups, salads, sandwiches, pasta and grain-based dishes, international fare, and desserts.

The recipes included quesadillas, focaccia bread, muffins and tofu scramble, creamy pasta primavera, shepherd’s pie, spicy potato curry, and red velvet cake, just to name a few.

The two-day program provided an excellent opportunity for the participants to network, said Gregory Gefroh, UND executive chef. “Great food is great food, and all the chefs who attended got to make and taste these dishes.”

“As Dining Services supports the University’s mission of recruitment and retention, I feel plant-based food is not just an emerging trend but something students have longed for on our campus,” Gefroh added. “Plant-based allows us to make great food for all students and faculty.”

“The mistake we learned early on,” Botts said, “is that you don’t want to make special foods for just one group of people. If you do that, it’s not going to be successful. Where you will have the most success is if you create foods and make them special for all your students.”

Healthier options sought

Orlynn Rosaasen, UND’s director of dining services, agrees.

“We receive consistent feedback from students through our student advisory group and through satisfaction surveys,” Rosaasen said. “Students want healthier and more plant-based options. Our intent is to provide options that appeal to all students, not just students practicing a vegan diet. We feel if the selections are tasty and look good, all students will enjoy eating plant-based foods.”

The movement for plant-based foods is growing worldwide and is being incorporated into the operations of leading producers and restaurant chains. Menus of Change, a collaboration between the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health, is exploring how plant-based foods can meet the needs of the world’s growing population. Chefs trained in these foods will play a critical role.

“You have the opportunity, and perhaps even an obligation, to inform the public of what’s good to eat and why,” Botts said. “We have not only the power to change the future, but we have the responsibility to the students that we’re serving to make a difference in their lives.”

“Truly, everybody in this room is a superhero,” Botts told the Food Forward participants. “The only difference is that you wear your capes on the front.”

–Richard Larson, UND Today staff writer